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The Archivesque: Reframing Folklore Collecting in a Popular Culture World

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Three images featuring (from left to right), Alan Lomax, Robert Winslow Gordon, and Nicole Saylor.
Alan Lomax (left), Robert Winslow Gordon (center), Nicole Saylor (right).

This post is an adaptation of my keynote address to the American Folklore Society’s pre-conference on folklore archiving, “Adventures in Folklore Archiving,” Oct. 16, 2017 in Minneapolis, MN.

I was out at a DC party recently and was asked the classic DC party question: “What do you do for a living?”

My answer was that I lead the archives team at the American Folklife Center. I went on to say that we document traditional expressive culture: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, and so on. I tried to unpack the concept of expressive culture—custom, belief, music, dance, and so on. I was dropping all of this folklore jargon and the crowd looked at me cockeyed and confused as I clumsily sputtered. Finally, my partner, who was tired of watching this sorry scene, blurted out, “She has Alan Lomax’s old job!”

Right away their faces lit up. In unison, they all said, “Ah, wow!” followed by variations of, “You must have the coolest job.”

That short-hand comparison at once filled me with pride and made me cringe. I pursed my lips into a strained smile and the conversation moved on. While technically true that we both have led what has become the American Folklife Center’s archives – Alan as “Assistant in Charge” of what was then the Archive of Folksong from 1937-1942 – our work bears little resemblance. Heck, our worlds bear little resemblance.

For one, he was foremost a documentarian, exalted for his prolific collecting and for defining a durable cannon of American folk music. He and his father, John, and before them the archives founder Robert Winslow Gordon, were expressly hired by the Library of Congress to document American folksong. They were adventurers traversing America in search of traditional music.

I, on the other hand, was hired about three generations later to continue the work of preserving their collecting legacy and accelerate the transformation of an already well-seeded archives into the digital age. So, it’s kind of funny that a publicity shot, taken by staff writer-editor Steve Winick, was staged down on a deck in the Library’s Jefferson Building where we keep many of our manuscript and photographic collections. Actually, I rarely have the opportunity to go down there, pull a folder, and just peruse it. A more accurate image would be me sitting at a computer answering email inquiries from donors or colleagues, or in meetings with developers discussing the automated ingest of born-digital interviews from cloud storage.

Those of us archiving ethnographic materials frequently find ourselves on the less valorized, more hidden side of documentary collecting. I feel a resonance here with how archivist Hillel Arnold characterizes archivists as maintainers. He has been looking at the work of archivists through the lens of maintenance theory. He recently wrote that “scholars in science and technology studies have examined maintenance in an effort to correct narratives that valorize individual innovators and disruptors, arguing that this emphasis on newness and innovation erases labor and bodies. Asking ‘who does maintenance work, when and where and why?’ they look to reveal and empower maintenance and the people who do it.”

I’m not exactly talking about empowering maintenance or valorizing innovation. I’m interested in those tensions in the important work we do, which is (to adapt a phrase from folklorist Mary Hufford) making community life and values, artfully expressed, part of a democratized public record.

It’s important to recognize that the reality of this work doesn’t always square with historic practice; it simply cannot in a time when everyone is now their own documentarian, when de-colonizing archives takes us from dead center of curatorial authority and moves us into radically new, and sometimes uncomfortable, relation to both our donors and to the institutions we represent. All the while, we are doing this work in a world where the boundaries between mass media and personal expression are so commonly permeated as to be nearly meaningless.

With apologies to folklorists Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey Tolbert, the title of the talk is a play on the title of their 2015 book, Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture World. In setting up the book, Foster described a situation in 2005 when he was invited to give a lecture about the popular Japanese film Spirited Away. He was asked to explain the folklore in the movie, which is full of deities, demons, transformations, magic spells and the like. The film included events and characters that seemed adapted from old narrative and beliefs. It felt familiar but it was not a retelling of traditional narratives and yet not completely fictional. Foster came to characterize this phenomenon in which folklore is vaguely referenced for its power to connect to something beyond the commercial product itself as “folkloresque.”

Some days it feels like some of the partnerships and new collecting areas we are forging at AFC have a similarly ambiguous, allusive quality of folklore collecting; neither is it wholly in line with our tradition nor is it invented from scratch. Many at AFC would say that the heart of our work is acquiring, processing, and making accessible ethnographic collections created by folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and other documentarians.

Yet that is not there where I spend the bulk of my time.

When I’m not working on the management side of stewarding ethnographic collections, I work on partnerships—with folklorists, non-profits, and technologists outside the division—that help us advance folklore collecting and scale preservation and access in ways we are not equipped to do alone or within the federal agency context. This results in a lot of meetings and negotiating. When it comes down to it, much of the work centers around issues of power and authority over the archival document, work that ultimately makes it a more inclusive and living one.

At its best, that work feels like folklore archiving R&D. It feels bold and engaging—and as close as I get to “Adventures in folklore archiving,” the theme of the conference. Other days, frankly, it can feel like a diversion from what has for so long been the core mission of our archives—creating and stewarding one of the world’s largest documentary archives of recordings, field notes, photographs, and moving image materials generated by professional archivists in the field. Let me explain what I mean.

Image of the late Gerald Parsons, reference librarian at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.
The late Gerald Parsons, reference librarian at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

There is a seminal piece of writing from the late Gerald Parsons, the former head of reference at the archives. In a 1991 memo, he described his own thinking about the nature and use of the Archive. You can read it in an issue of Folklife Center News (pp. 7-10), but in short he noted that our collections have three distinctive features:  1) they are “multi-format,” meaning that our collections always entail, at the least, something inscribed on paper as well as something inscribed on a medium of sound recording or photography, 2) they are “unpublished,” the raw material, not the finished product, and 3) they are “created works” made by a fieldworker through a conscious weaving together of documentation to achieve a rounded statement.

Flash forward 25 years and this seemingly durable definition is being challenged in remarkable ways.

Of course, today, multi-format collecting can include mp3 recordings, jpeg selfies, and json files containing information created by users of a mobile application built to capture oral narratives. We now curate a Web Cultures Collection – a set of web pages documenting vernacular culture on the web. The capture includes WARC files, animated GIFs and all manner of formats people use when they engage in creative expression online.

What does published and unpublished even mean anymore? If someone uploaded their version of “Sea Lion Woman” to some obscure music-sharing site, is it published? With the advent of those kinds of sites, not to mention commercial recordings, how can we hope to document the contemporary successors whose linage can be traced to many of the musicians in our archives by making such an exclusion?

Then there is the notion of a “created work,” a hand that has authored a set of folklore documentation. We’re now piloting efforts to re-author, if you will, Native American recordings made by white people during the turn of the 20th century. We’re also seeking nominations from folklorists and others for web sites to archive that are exemplars of vernacular culture on the web. The extent of authorship by professional folklorists, in this case, starts and stops with their nomination of a particular URL. By sheer volume, the greatest number of new interviews coming into our archive are being made by people with no ethnographic training.

All of these things are true because of the partnerships I mentioned earlier; partnerships with folklorists, non-profits, and technologists. In each case, these relationships allow for both parties to advance their cause. We also help each other see around the corners to a future fast approaching.

Traditional Knowledge Labels

Once such partnership is between AFC and Local Contexts, led by anthropologists Jane Anderson and Kim Christen. They have created something called TK Labels, a tool for Indigenous communities to add existing local protocols for access and use to recorded cultural heritage that is digitally circulating outside their own communities. Native American tribes can assign these labels to cultural artifacts (in our pilot that means audio recordings made on wax cylinder) to communicate how their cultural property should be treated. The labels are specifically designed to clarify what materials have specific access and use preferences, or to add information that might be considered missing. These partners want to test this labeling system in our institutional setting, and we need a framework for creating this kind of exchange with tribal communities because we have so much Native American material.

Now some years into this partnership, we are finding the work promising but slow-going. Currently, “slow” is antithetical to the ethos of libraries where certain assumptions about open access and digital scale persist. For me, there is tension around making sure this project remains a priority for our library colleagues as it has taken years to get to the point where we now have a single sample record. As cultural workers know, building these relationships with communities is slow and requires sustained attention. How can these competing impulses to scale and go slow be managed to get us where we need to be on responsibly opening up the archives?

In another partnership, our nearly 15-year relationship with StoryCorps, we are entering the world of mobile phone collecting. Since the launch of the StoryCorps mobile app in March 2015, that collection has swelled from around 50,000 to around 200,000 interviews.  While our developers have technical solutions to accommodate the influx of interviews, a constellation of new questions have arisen. Just last month, Storycorps launched a new online portal they call the “StoryCorps Archive” that will eventually provide online access to most of the StoryCorps corpus. The site is infused will social media features–likes, comments, the ability to curate your own collection of interviews. It also gives mobile interview participants the ability to log in and manage their digital interview file and its metadata. What of this dynamic content is in scope for Library archiving? What does giving the mobile app participants the ability to replace their interview file in this online environment do to the notion of a fixed archives or to the integrity of the recorded interview?

Screen capture from Web Cultures Collection.
Web Cultures Collection

And a third partnership is with our colleagues in the Web Archiving program at the Library, which provides a service to harvest websites. Earlier this year, we launched a collection of 34 websites documenting vernacular culture on the web. These sites were selected by soliciting nominations from folklorists and others at work studying digital culture. While the collection has a stated scope, the reality of choosing and keeping up with a proliferation of sites where people are practicing folklore is enormous and daunting. In an institution archives that was built on fieldworkers—authored/mediated documentation of expressive culture–how does scraping whole websites for researcher use square with that? Even though we seek permission from site owners before we harvest the sites, what about the potential implications for the users? Beyond providing a few nominations, where is the interest in actually doing research on this corpus within the folklore community, let alone within AFC? Are we prepared to facilitate the computational uses of creative expression?

In Folkloresque, Foster points out that defining folklore is all the more problematic in an age of technology in which “forms of firsthand immediate performance may be entirely textual (text messages, chat rooms, Twitter) and oral ‘face-to-face’ communication may be mediated (Second Life, Skype), edited, or transmitted through time lags (YouTube, Vimeo). Clearly, divisions between oral and written, mass and personal, mediated and face-to-face have to be rethought.”

Without a doubt, we find ourselves in a world our predecessors would hardly recognize, let alone find nearly as heroic. Yet we can claim some common purpose, whether it’s pioneering new technologies to advance our work or looking for ways to achieve cultural equity.

As the embrace of technology creates new quandaries and stretches old ethical dilemmas in new directions, we are trying to be brave, experiment, embrace ambiguity, let go of some control, and try not to stress the “folkloresque.” Foster encourages us to consider its relationship to folklore as “symbiotic or circular rather than oppositional.” He implores us to “adjust our understanding of the relationship of the vernacular and the commercial, of the traditional and the innovative, and understand all of these manifestations as part of a complex and always shifting process of human creativity.”

Comments (2)

  1. Thanks so much for posting this for those of us who were unable to attend the AFS Archives & Libraries Section pre-conference workshop. You provide important information and perspectives on the complex world of contemporary “collecting” and our understanding of the relationships of the vernacular and the commercial, the traditional and innovative, and the ever-evolving processes of human creativity.

  2. Wonderful posting. It occurs to me that the partnerships you mention (folklorist, not-for-profit, technologist) are in fact very good descriptors of the skills we as caretakers (or “maintainers”) of culture must develop, to ensure that collections are not only properly de-colonized and re-authorized but reconsidered in light of the contemporary and always changing society.

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